Last week a long-awaited arrival showed up on my doorstep: a box of seagrass baskets ready to be added to my classroom and to Montessori Child! I eagerly unpacked the box and sat happily on the floor surrounded by a beautiful bounty of baskets, imagining all the treasures that might one day be contained within each little seagrass satchel. A knock at the door broke my daydreaming and I clambered through my woven obstacle course to welcome in my friend and her little boy. The little one marvelled momentarily at my collection but couldn’t ignore the eager invitation of my dog Ringo standing with a ball in his mouth and a wagging tail. So as the two eager boys played a game of “roll-fetch” together my friend and I were able to sit and chat about the beauty of baskets. Her main question was something along the lines of “They’re gorgeous! But what do you use them for?”. Since I had so much fun answering her I thought I’d share a few of my responses with you too!
Book Baskets are a great way to keep books engaging, relevant, contained and close-by!
Many conscientious parents understand the power and value of books during early childhood but perhaps it is possible to have “too much of a good thing” – at least when it is all in one place. A library shelf can be overwhelming to a child – too many choices all at once, too many colours causing sensory overload, too many individual books to even dream of keeping them all in order! No wonder library shelves so often end up as a half-full backdrop to a mountain of books on the floor! Since a child can’t possibly read a hundred books at once – or in a day, or even a week –why do all of those books need to be visible and accessible all in a single location?
Book Baskets are a unique way of organising and presenting books. Start by choosing a few spots in your home where you think your child might benefit from a book nook. Place a basket in each chosen location, and along with your child choose a couple of books for each basket. Some popular spots in the home might be next to the family couch in the living room, somewhere cosy in the kitchen, beside the child’s bed, next to a window under the streaming sunshine, even next to the toilet (this might sound a bit yucky at first, but if your child is learning to use the toilet then a few books close-by can provide the perfect motivation to stay seated until the magic moment arrives!). A few books in each basket, a few baskets around the home, and suddenly there is a fairly broad range available but in a much more maintainable structure! Now you can place your main ‘library’ out of sight or out of reach without feeling as though you are withholding the beauty of books. Each time your child seems to lose interest in a particular book, or in a whole basket, simply take a trip together to your home-library to rotate the collection.
Book Baskets can also be useful for exploring specific themes – either in the classroom or at home. In a classroom setting a Book Basket can be placed beside a particular activity on the shelf; why not have a set of books relating to colours or shapes sitting on the Sensorial shelf, or place a couple of books relating to geography just beside the Puzzle Maps. If we think of the home environment, perhaps if a family is approaching a holiday to the snow then it is an ideal time to set up a Book Basket relating to weather and winter! Either dip into your home-library shelf or take a trip to the local library* to source some additional resources.
*It’s worth noting that Book Baskets are particularly good for keeping track of borrowed library books – just designate one specific basket as the Library Basket. It’s easier to find the books here – with perhaps one wandering somewhere closeby – than it is to search for them amongst the piles of books on a busy shelf.
Book Baskets are also a good way of organising and rotating bedtime favourites. Many children prefer a familiar book to be read repeatedly (night in, night out as well as over and over again each night!) as part of the bedtime routine, rather than a different one every night. Book Baskets allow your child to exercise independence, choice and forethought in readying the bedtime routine. Simply keep a basket beside the bed (or on the bedside table) and prior to bedtime invite your child to “check the Bedtime Book Basket” to see whether he or she is happy with the books in there. This provides a clear but positive signal that bedtime is on its way (without making your child feel disempowered). You can invent your own “rules” with your child about the Bedtime Book Basket; perhaps you will decide together that there can only be three books at any time so that when a child wants to introduce a new book into the rotation he or she must put away another to make room for it. This starts to introduce important concepts of self-regulation and boundaries. It also helps to ensure that the bedtime routine won’t involve endless hours of reading; you are establishing a consistent, predictable boundary about the quantity of books that you have to choose from so there is less opportunity for argument.
When adults think of picnics we tend to have a rather grandiose and romanticised mental image; a large wicker hamper filled with a dazzling array of fresh foods spread out across an enormous red-and-white chequered rug under the warm summer sun. The reality does not need to be quite so “Hollywood”, especially for a young child. Your child hasn’t developed any firmly held stereotypes about what does or doesn’t count as a “proper” picnic. You can whip up a picnic on a rainy day with a single apple as long as you’re willing! What your child truly values about a picnic is a chance to connect with you. So if there’s no chequered rug or giant hamper available then simply grab a little basket, fill it with whatever is handy in the kitchen (or whatever you would have served as a snack anyway) and head to the garden…or the patio…or the balcony! Just find some fresh air and sit with your child basking in the warm glow of each other’s company!
Market / Shopping Baskets
As a Montessori teacher I spend a large part of my professional life engaging in observation of children; their behaviour, their interactions, their activities. It is a bit of an occupational hazard that this habit becomes hard to switch-off when I leave the classroom. So as I walk around my local supermarket, or head to the farmer’s markets on the weekend, I tend to engage in a bit of extra-curricular observation. It’s a fascinating setting for a social experiment as I get to see two extremes on the spectrum of behaviour. I watch happily engaged children chatting with mum, dad or a grandparent while wandering around delighting in the fresh produce on display. And I watch children kicking and screaming on the floor yelling for another Kinder Surprise. I can’t claim to have all the answers about why some children fall into the former category while others succumb to the latter (or why a child who smiles 9 times out of 10 might be the one on the floor on the 10th shopping trip!). I also don’t suggest that I have the magic potion to complete a transformation from tearful tantrum to happy helper (although if I did know that formula I’d be a rich woman!). What I can offer are my observations. The children who I see happily engaging are those who are actively involved. The children who are screaming and crying are those who are passively following. So my logical conclusion is that a good way to increase the likelihood of a happy, successful and smooth shopping trip is to keep a child actively involved in the process. One way of doing this is to give a child his or her own shopping basket and a shopping list.
Before you leave for the shops or market start by creating a shopping list for your child. Not only does this establish your child’s proactive purpose but it also gives your child an empowered sense of forethought about the day ahead. Now, instead of being dragged around, your child knows where you are going and why. The shopping list can also act as an indicator of time. In a big supermarket or expansive farmer’s market a child can lose track of time and space; an hour can feel like an eternity. If you create a shopping list for your child that features at least one item towards the start of the trip and at least one item available towards the end of the trip then your child has a more tangible sense of the passage of time and can recognise progress towards the completion of the task. If you know your local supermarket or shops fairly easily then it shouldn’t be too hard to identify a ‘start’ and ‘end’ product. If your child is reading (or in the early stages of acquiring this skill) you can create a written shopping list together. Base the items on your child’s reading level; an early-reader might prefer items with short, familiar names while a more advanced reader can list items with more complicated names. If your child is too young to read you can create an illustrated list; a drawing of a strawberry, with the written name alongside for good measure! The number of the items on the list should reflect your child’s age and developmental stage; a young child, with a shorter attention span and less physical endurance, is going to be fine with two or three items on his or her shopping list. You can choose a small basket accordingly, with just enough space to hold the list, a pencil (for your child to tick off the items as you go!) and the couple of items. An older child can list, seek out and carry more items in a larger basket.
It might be one of the more obvious uses, but it is also an extremely handy one. Many children’s activities come in containers that are intended to be discarded; cardboard boxes filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces, a plastic tube containing model animals. The packaging is discarded almost immediately and suddenly there are loose pieces to take care of. No wonder it is so common for a piece or two of a set to go missing – often rendering the whole activity virtually useless! Transitioning an activity from its original packaging to an attractive basket helps a child to keep track of all the important pieces while also inviting interest in using the activity.
Activity Baskets are also a great way of grouping together related objects, even if they do not belong to a single activity. At my Pre-school, for example, we use a Walking on the Line basket. It is filled with props and provocations for the Montessori exercise of Walking on the Line. It includes a CD of musical pieces to inspire different types of movement and a few accessories to increase the challenge of this coordination exercise; a beanbag, a small jug to hold water and a balancing bird. This little collection creates a point of interest for the children and inspires them to engage in the related experience.
“Limitation of Materials” Baskets
Montessori is full of principles and practices that I would describe as “subtle yet powerful”. One of these tiny yet mighty principles is the idea of the ‘limitation of materials’. In a nutshell the idea is that you limit the quantity of items so that a child is set up for success with achieving a task, displaying self-control and maintaining order in the environment. This can apply to the whole room or a single resource. A classroom shouldn’t necessarily display absolutely every resource all at once; this could be overwhelming so instead we provide ‘freedom within limits’ by carefully preparing the environment with a selection of materials. When it comes to individual resources I find it can also be extremely useful to apply the principle of limitation of materials. This is particularly true when introducing something new or investing in a resource that will be used for the long-term.
Let’s use the example of our Fabric Matching Game. If I was introducing this for the first time I would want the child(ren) to be able to focus on just comprehending the basic concept and procedure. This will be easier with just a few pairs to match (rather than all ten pairs that are present in the full set). So I would choose just a small selection of highly contrasting pairs to begin with. I can place this small range in a basket alongside a blindfold so that there is a self-contained and carefully prepared selection of limited materials. The child’s interest is invited by the open and aesthetically appealing presentation. The child’s chance of success is increased by the limitation of materials.
The term “Treasure Hunt” conjures up thoughts of swashbuckling adventures but you don’t need a pirate ship when you have a backyard (or a park down the road). Children love going on nature walks and simply taking along a basket turns it into a treasure hunt. As your child ambles along, basket in hand, he or she can collect fallen leaves, smooth shiny stones, and all the other little treasures that nature so generously offers. You can leave the treasure hunt open-ended and allow your child’s spontaneous interest to direct his or her collection. On another day you might initiate a goal for your natural treasure hunt – “Let’s collect green treasures on our nature walk today” or maybe “Let’s collect smooth treasures today”. When you get home your child will eagerly root through his or her Nature Basket, excitedly pulling out each special treasure and reliving each beautiful memory.
Baskets to Reignite Interest
Baskets can become a point of provocation to reignite interest or inspiration, based on any one of the concepts above (or any other idea that your imagination concocts!). A book that hasn’t been read for a while can be popped in a Book Basket to invite your child towards its pages. If you feel that you and your child haven’t “connected” in a while, perhaps after a busy period with work and/or school respectively, then place a couple of snacks in a Picnic Basket and leave it sitting in the kitchen as a surprise for your child to discover. If your child hasn’t used a particular activity for a while, and it is at risk of becoming forgotten in the catacombs of a toy box or cupboard, then place it out in a clearly visible Activity Basket to check whether it might reignite a spark of delight for your child. Your child might return to revisit, revise and repeat (or it might prove that the activity is actually ready to be passed along to a friend, family member or charity shop). You can even put together your own Nature Basket by collating some mementos from past experiences; trips to the beach, family holidays, walks in the park. Place these treasures in a basket on the shelf, perhaps with a magnifying glass as well, and watch your child discover and reminisce!
There are, of course, so many other uses for baskets – simply let yourself be guided by your imagination and your lifestyle. All around the world and for so long in human history we have utilised baskets as a fundamental part of our culture. Gathering food, protecting valued treasures, organising our homes and lives. It is never too early to involve a child in his or her culture – a baby starts to absorb culture from the very first moments of life – so why not introduce your own child to the endless possibilities of the humble, heroic basket!